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June 2016

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The Brooklyn NewFronts, Revisionist History, More on Branded Pods

Written by , Posted in Hot Pod Weekly

Oh geez. So much happened while I was out. This week’s column will be more of a rundown than usual. Let’s get to it.

Fact Sheet. I’m all about those 30,000 feet views. Last week, the Pew Research Center published its much-respected State of the News Media 2016 report, a dependable resource of material for media nerds to geek out over. Like previous versions, this year’s report comes with a dedicated Podcasting section, and for the most part it does a pretty good job of providing a snapshot of the industry at this point in time. Interested podcast-oriented readers should also pay attention to the section on Public Broadcasting, which digs into NPR’s current dynamics pretty well and digs up some handy data points to boot.

I highly recommend checking both sections out, but I just wanted to make a quick note: this is presumably the report that many newcomers and unfamiliar media analysts will turn to — and the one that future podcast entrepreneurs will cite in pitch decks — for a clean, clear description of the state of the podcast industry in the months to come. It is important, then, to note the many quirks of the report, including its utilization of Libsyn data to chart out the scale of podcast hosting and downloads — which does not account for the volumes of hosting and downloads that take place on premium platforms like Art19, Megaphone, and whatever public radio stations use — as well as its perpetuation of the ZenithOptimedia $34 million dollar estimated ad spend for the medium in 2015, the problem of which I discussed in my last column.

Anyway, the Pew report wasn’t the only high-level overview of the podcast industry that came out over the past few weeks. The independent tech analyst Ben Thompson also recently published a very, very solid assessment on his Stratechery blog, which you should absolutely peruse if you haven’t already. His reading of the medium’s history is consistent with my own, and it even comes with an interesting — and possibly very complicated — alternate path for the industry to go down in the months to come.

The New, New Front. “We wanted to make it feel scrappy,” said Chris Giliberti, Gimlet’s Chief of Staff, when we spoke over the phone last week. “There are companies in the digital media world that aren’t just focused on scale — some are also focused on building deep connections with their audiences, some concentrate on making their artisanal media more premium.”

Giliberti is describing the impetus behind the Brooklyn NewFronts, a new digital media industry event that took place for the first time last Tuesday. This inaugural edition saw Gimlet present its upcoming slate of programming alongside a few other up-and-coming digital media companies: the Lena Dunham-branded publication Lenny, the travel curiosity site Atlas Obscura, the annotation platform Genius, and the Hearst-powered Snapchat channel Sweet. (All five companies contributed to the organization of the event.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the event despite the fact it took place in Genius’ offices — a mere ten minute walk from my apartment/kitchen office — as I’m unexpectedly West Coast-based for the summer, but I’m told that it was a fairly stripped down, focused affair. Politico Media described it as “a sort of lower-budget, smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the Digital Content NewFronts,” which I guess squares with the whispers I’ve been getting. (Interestingly enough, the Digital Content Newfronts can probably also be described as a smaller-scale, cool-kid version of the traditional TV upfronts — though, given the fact that the scale and spectacle of that NewFront seem to be growing year over year, one could expect the prestige hierarchies to flip soon enough.) An upfront, for the uninitiated, is best described as an industry event that typically features publishers presenting their upcoming wares in a move to drum up interest among ad buyers.

It should be noted that Tuesday’s alt-Front isn’t the first upfront event to feature podcast programming. The past twelve months have already seen two other podcast-oriented upfronts: one organized by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB), and another put together by a consortium of public radio organizations (involving NPR, WNYC, and WBEZ).

But what Gimlet’s doing here is interesting. Train your focus on what the company is trying to do by grouping itself within Lenny, Atlas Obscura, Genius, and Sweet. By lumping themselves in with these digital media companies working within relatively trusted mediums, Gimlet is effectively taking advantage of a halo effect generated by companies those buzz and narratives are tied almost solely to its editorial brand and substance as opposed to their distribution technologies — which is, unfortunately, a narrative burden that still handicaps much of the conversation around most other podcast companies. Instead of drawing overtly attention to its nature as a podcast company, Gimlet appears to be focusing  the conversation purely on its programming and brand, two clear areas of focus where the company knows it can win.

It’s a smart move. Hopefully, it pays off.

The New Gimlet Shows. So what new pods did Gimlet trot out at the dog and pony show? Some we already know, others we don’t. Here’s the lineup:

  1. A true crime show developed with the creators of HBO’s “The Jinx”;
  2. “Twice Removed,” a genealogy-oriented show by author AJ Jacobs — known for his books documenting his life experiments, like “The Year of Living Biblically” — which will explore connections between two disparate people;
  3. “Heavyweight,” the latest project by Wiretap’s Jonathan Goldstein, which will presumably feature his trademark use of autobiography and literary writing;
  4. “Afterwards” (working title), a show that will take a fresh look at the events of the past (not unlike, perhaps, Panoply’s newly launched project with Malcolm Gladwell; and
  5. Science Vs,” the science pod that Gimlet acquired from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full Court Press. Last week was a busy one for Panoply, which rolled out the first episode of “Revisionist History,” its big-swing project with author (and general man-about-town) Malcolm Gladwell. The Graham Holdings-owned podcast company appeared to lean hard on Gladwell’s celebrity to establish a strong promotional circuit involving spots on “CBS This Morning,” CBC’s “Q with Shadrach Kabango,” and the Recode Media podcast. The buzz around Gladwell’s podcast, which pushed it up to the number one spot on the iTunes hotness chart (where it remains at this writing), also scored Panoply a Bloomberg profile.

(Disclaimer: Panoply was once my day-job employer.)

That Bloomberg profile, by the way, provides some meaty details on Panoply’s internal expectations around the podcast. Note the following quote:

[Matt] Turck [Panoply’s Chief Revenue Officer] predicts that Revisionist History could draw over 500,000 downloads per episode, with Gladwell providing star power and Apple giving support. That would match the best performance of The Message… “I don’t know if there will ever be another Serial, anything that explosive,” said Turck. “But boy we’ve stacked the deck to give it a run for the money.”

Panoply’ll have to set their sights a little further if they really intend to give Serial a run for its money, of course. 500,000 downloads per episode, as either projected goal or realized performance, simply won’t put Revisionist History anywhere close to being “the next Serial.” When Serial’s second season was closing up its final week, the team’s community editor Kirsten Taylor told me that each episode had consistently enjoyed around 3 million downloads on its launch week throughout the season.

Speaking of Panoply... It look like they’re developing a podcast project with First Look Media, the Pierre Omidyar-backed news organization. The project, “Politically Re-active,” which features comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu — regulars on the public radio circuit and its podcast descendents — will explore basic, fundamental questions pertaining to the 2016 US presidential elections.

This partnership with Panoply marks First Look Media’s first foray into audio, serving as a continuation of its multi-brand, multi-platform strategy that’s included The Intercept, the Glenn Greenwald-fronted national security journalism site, and Reported.ly, its socially-distributed news organization focused on human rights and social justice. First Look Media has also started dabbling in film, acting as a producing partner on the Academy Award-winning Spotlight.

Crisis Narrative. Add yet another thread to public radio’s growing existential crisis narrative: the fact that a generation of established talent is steadily aging out, which The Wall Street Journal’s Ellen Gamerman observes using the retirement of Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor as the hook.

“Some of the biggest radio stars of a generation are exiting the scene while public-radio executives attempt to stem the loss of younger listeners on traditional radio,” Gamerman wrote, before describing how NPR is grappling with slowing the loss of younger listeners over the radio and how its member station-reliant business model is under threat from the competition generated by emerging podcast companies that complicate its attempts to transition into digital.

If you’re keeping tabs on the growing body of public radio existential crisis literature, here’s a quick list of the other incidents that have inspired this narrative: (1) NPR CEO’s Jarl Mohn summer 2015 incident during his visit to the organization’s New York bureau, which served as the catalyzing event for Politico’s “Can NPR seize its moment?” article, the first of this genre; (2) the NPR Memo kerfuffle; and (3) WBAA’s decision to stop syndicating This American Life citing mission-based disagreement over the latter’s partnership with Pandora, later reversed.

And speaking of that NPR Memo kerfuffle, Gamerman’s piece contains a detail that sheds a little more light on the thinking behind the policy, highlighted by the infamous memo to hold on promoting NPR One over broadcast: according to an NPR spokeswoman, VP of News Programming and Operations Chris Turpin “doesn’t want hosts to promote NPR One until all local stations are represented on the app.” Interesting! (Update: NPR’s senior director of media relations Isabel Lara reached out to say that the Journal had misquoted her when she relayed Turpin’s point. “He never said that ‘ALL stations’ needed to be part of NPR One before we could promote it on the air,” she wrote. “The point that I was trying to make… is that we are encouraging stations to participate because our goal is to make the national/local listener experience better and better.” I’ll follow up next week.)

Meanwhile, NPR appears to be looking for a new product manager to work on podcasts and social. (I had initially thought that this hire would work alongside Mathilde Piard, who had been the organization’s product manager working podcasts but has since evolved into a more general programming role. Fascinating!) And last week also saw the start of the second season of Invisibilia, NPR’s record-breaking podcast that reportedly broke 10 million downloads within its first four weeks of launching last year.

Balance that out however you’d like.

More on Branded Podcasts. Gamerman’s Garrison Keillor article wasn’t the Wall Street Journal’s only piece on pods last week. One of the paper’s media reporters, Steven Perlberg, pubbed an update on the trend of brand-sponsored podcasts following the launch of eBay’s “Open for Business,” the first podcast put out by Gimlet Creative, that company’s branded podcast unit.

The juiciest tidbit from that article does not have to do with Gimlet, however. It has to do to with its counterpart over at Panoply. From Perlberg’s article:

The ruling metric of the podcast industry is the “unique download” of an episode. Podcasters are often unclear on how many actually listen after downloading an episode, how long they listened and their demographic makeup.

To deal with that issue, Panoply created landing webpages for each podcast, which it distributes across its social channels and buys ads on places like Facebook. Mr. Hernandez said Panoply guarantees marketers a certain amount of engagement on those webpages, as opposed to being able to guarantee a certain number of listeners.

That’s certainly an interesting way to handle the metrics issue. At the end of the day, brand advertising effectiveness is grounded in however brands can be convinced that their making an impression over their target demographics. Panoply, then, has an advantage here, given that it has control over a platform through which they have the potential to gain some control over the way brands have conversation about advertising efficacy — through the development of new ad measurement features, through potentially partnering with third party measurement arbiters, and so on.

Also relevant here is the following detail from the previously mentioned Bloomberg profile of Panoply from a few items up:

At the low end, Panoply charges a brand $150,000 to produce and promote a podcast. The biggest productions reach into the seven digits.

Seven digits, eh?

WNYC Interns get fair wage assurances. But will the station follow through? A few weeks ago, I wrote about a petition initiative that’s been floating about urging New York Public Radio to pay its interns more than the $12 a day stipend they currently get. It looks like the initiative is making some headway.

Mickey Capper, the freelance radio producer who headed up the petition effort, wrote me in an email:

Jennifer Houlihan Roussel [head of the station’s comms team] confirmed that NYPR would start paying interns in fiscal year 2017..  Exact wage tbd and most details tbd, but she said that all internships would be paid and they’re currently working on it. It seems Brenda Williams-Butts has been championing this and spearheading it on the inside and deserves oodles of credit.

Williams-Butts, by the way, is NYPL’s VP of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion. I asked Capper if he thinks whether the organization will follow through. He seemed optimistic. “I believe WNYC will follow through as they’ve been very careful to commit to anything beyond vague statements of intention up to this point,” Capper wrote back.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this. And speaking of WNYC…

Werk It, Part Two. The station held the second edition of its annual women in podcasting festival, “Werk It,” late last week. The three day long event, which took place in WNYC’s Greene Space, featured a stellar schedule of panels and presentation from some truly remarkable talent and operators, including PRX’s Julie Shapiro, Another Round’s Tracy Clayton, NPR’s Kelly McEvers, and Radiolab’s Molly Webster, among many, many others. If you didn’t get to attend, don’t worry! You can check out a recording of the festival on its website.

That List. Collisions Media, the nascent podcasting arm of Connecticut-based radio marketing company CRN International, sparked controversy last week when it published one of the “most influential people” lists for the podcast industry which included only two women and only two people of color (I’m one of those two, and really, at least 50 other women and people of color should’ve been on that list before me). The company has since taken down the list following significant online pushback, later following up with an apology.

There’s a lot baked into this incident: that the visibility of women as principals in the podcast space still isn’t a given despite the fact that the professionalizing thread of the industry is substantially built on the strength of women as talent and operators (this is unambiguous); that this is very much a reflection on the lack of diversity among leadership teams in podcast companies, and in the people that podcast companies choose as public representatives; that the community is moved to push back against a small and largely inconsequential podcast entity, and rightly so, as the industry’s narrative is still so underdeveloped and malleable and largely known to the mainstream, so even small things like this count. When a world is this small, everything counts.

I generally hold a distaste for “most influential people” lists. They often strike me frustratingly hagiographic, myopic, and reductive — painfully uninterested in the realities of how many people and how much it takes to simply do anything. Which is to say, I find them distasteful largely because the spirit that informs such enterprises will never quite be done justice; such lists are intents to honor individuals, but its political nature — which is inherent despite its pageantry — ultimately dishonors the context around those individuals. To put it simply: it’s impossible to make a list that’ll properly do right by the community.

Shortly before Collisions took down its list, the Washington Post’s Alex Laughlin published a counter-list of her own: “The 22 Most Influential Women in Podcasting,” and even that contained a slight contentious choice: it considered Pineapple Street Media’s Jenna Weiss-Berman as the only female owner of a podcasting company. In the comments section, some folks have pointed to Mignon Fogarty, who started the Quick and Dirty Tips network, as an example to the contrary, while others debated the nature of what it means to exert “influence.”

But, thinking through this, the counterargument would be that such lists are nonetheless elements that facilitate the industry’s identity-building. One could argue that the story of the industry is a battlefield that should constantly engage in a process of negotiation anchored in persistent dissatisfaction, because we should never let such collective narratives ossify. When we stop iterating on the stories we tell about ourselves, our worlds, and our communities, we stop trying.

The fact that I’m rambling here should indicate to you that these are nothing more than half-baked ideas at this point, and that I don’t really know how to cap off this item. Which is why I’ll cut it abruptly here. Throw me your thoughts, I’m always listening.

Meanwhile, on the West Coast. PodcastOne has named Jim Berk as the company’s new CEO, according to the Wall Street Journal, replacing founder Norm Pattiz in the position. Pattiz, who also has the distinction of founding American radio network Westwood One, will retain his title as the company’s executive chairman.

Bites:

  • Be sure not to miss this interview with EW Scripps’ Chief Digital Officer Adam Symson for some insight into how the corporation views podcasting and how it may further its investments in the space in the months to come. (Nieman Lab)

  • Curious about public benefit corporations, the corporate structure of choice for This American Life and RadioPublic? This recent Current column is a pretty good overview. (Current)

  • WBUR is piloting a new, fascinating podcast experiment: “The Magic Pill,” a 21-day health podcast challenge with each day featuring 10-minute episodes of “new science, big ideas, human stories, quick tips.” The challenge starts September 1, but the pilot episode’s out now. (WBUR)

  • The Amazon Echo slides its tentacles into local news distribution. (Information Week)

  • “’The British Serial’: Podcast on mysterious murder of Daniel Morgan tops (the UK’s) iTunes chart.” (Evening Standard)